Joanna Priestley knows abstract animation can be intimidating. That's why the independent animator chuckles as she sits before a sluggish Mac in her Northwest Portland studio and hits "play" on her newest project. The first sounds out of the speakers are fart noises, which ring out as colorful dandelions explode onscreen.
"Abstract animation is a genre of cinema that can create anxiety in an audience," says Priestley. "That's part of the motivation for trying to create humorous elements."
Priestley, 63, has been producing animated shorts for 30 years, and her work will be collected in a retrospective at this weekend's Portland Oregon Women's Film Festival. Hailed by the legendary Bill Plympton as "the queen of independent animation," her films prove that animation for adults can be as silly and cheeky as the stuff directed at kids.
Priestley also speaks with an appealing, childlike enthusiasm about her work: "I just can't wait to get here and play," she says. Munching on a gluten-free peanut-butter cookie, she explains that her current project draws on things other than flatulence: the colors and lines of Mondrian; the intricate designs of Delft pottery; and the ice forms, crows and First Nations masks she observed during a residency in the Yukon two years ago. Once the fart sounds quiet, dubstep compositions by 29-year-old sound designer Seth Norman—whom Priestley met at Mother's Velvet Lounge a few years ago and has worked with since—soundtrack pulsing blue waves and bouncing orbs. And the project's title? Blue Balls. Priestley feigns ignorance before eventually acknowledging the double entendre.
"I took this great workshop at SheBop"—the female-friendly sex shop—"called 'full-bodied fellatio,' and the subject of blue balls came up," Priestley says. Though she says she'd already chosen the film's title, the workshop reaffirmed it.
When the Portland-born Priestley first dipped into animation in 1983, she made a vow, inspired by independent animation icons Faith and John Hubley, to make a film a year. She's nearly met that goal, producing 27 shorts in the past three decades. She's animated paper cutouts, backlit sand, clay sculptures and rubber stamps, touching on themes serious (the prison system), personal (menopause) and playful (her collaborations with slam poet Taylor Mali are particularly whimsical, such as an impassioned ode to the demoted Pluto). Her focus for the past several years, though, has been computer-generated, doggedly abstract films.
"It's so seductive," she says of abstract animation. "I think it's very pure because you're working strictly with line, color, shape and texture. It automatically narrows down the choices you have to make."
Take Split Ends, which Priestley completed last year. Inspired by patterns in nature, architecture and even midcentury wrapping paper, she crafted three minutes of visually hypnotic footage. Set to an atmospheric electronic score composed by Norman, the film is filled with ever-morphing shapes: squirming pink curlicues, filigreed teal snowflakes, purple fleurs de lis that transform into freaky faces, magenta leaves that sprout from the bottom of the screen. Imagine gazing at fancy Victorian-era wallpaper while tripping on acid.
In addition to her interests in botany, modern dance and athletics—"I was glued to the Olympics," she says—Priestley is also fueled by an eagerness to experiment. In the summer of 2012, she and an intern named Jed Bursiak developed an app called Clam Bake. It's an interactive game, the screen populated by abstract shapes that, when tapped, pop open to eject an 8-ball or burst into confetti. "Making the app was some of the most fun Iâve ever had, really,â she says.
Had she been drawn to computer games before? âIâve played my share of Angry Birds,â she admits. âAngry Birds has good animation. I wouldnât play it if it had lousy animation.â